How to Camp in Joshua Tree National Park for Free

A mini guide on how to camp in Joshua Tree National Park - on the cheap!

By: Ty Merkel
November 18, 2016

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Joshua Tree is one of my favorite national parks - it has charming campgrounds, otherworldly rock formations, super bright stars at night, and (let’s not forget) Yucca brevifolia - those wonky, gorgeous Joshua trees. The park has a cult-like fan base composed of rock climbers, Boy Scout troops, tortoise enthusiasts, and other eccentric desert people.

Of course, this all means that the park proper is often crowded - even in the off-season - and most campsites are quickly snagged by proactive adventurers. And I am not a proactive adventurer. I’m the type who impulsively drives into Joshua Tree on a Friday night, wanders around searching desperately for an open campsite, and failing to find one, tries to sleep in the front seat of her car, whilst staring longingly at people in the distance happily roasting marshmallows around a fire pit.

If only I knew what I know now: if you're willing to get creative and head off the beaten path, you can always find great, legal, free campsites around Joshua Tree. Read on for your options, fellow impulsive adventurers!

BLM Dispersed Camping

The Bureau of Land Management offers free camping near the national park's south and north entrance. 

There aren’t any restrooms, no fires allowed (unless you nab a permit) no trash collection, no hot tub—obviously they aren’t the sexiest campgrounds available, but it is a superb deal for the low, low price of $0.00 per site.Obviously, normal camping etiquette applies.

Here are directions to the northern site near the wee town of Joshua Tree and the southern site near Cottonwood Springs. 

Backcountry Camping

First order of business is to grab a backcountry permit, which you can pick up from a ranger’s station. There are the 13 backcountry boards where you can ditch your car and educate yourself on the ecology of the surrounding area. Stash the top half of the permit into your backpack and remember to display the bottom segment in your car’s dashboard, otherwise your vehicle could be cited or towed which kinda ruins the whole “free” objective.

All primitive campsites must also be one mile from any road or trailhead and 100 feet away from any water source. There is also an extensive amount of information online warning you to not camp in any wild animal's nesting area. So yeah, don’t do that.

Camping etiquette applies here as well. Also, make sure to bring one gallon of water for each person per day and ample cooking gear and food since campfires aren’t allowed in the back country either.

In closing, remember to pick up your trash, don’t forget to bury your poop, refrain from petting the desert tortoises and enjoy the free camping, friends! 

(Also if any park rangers are reading this, I was totally kidding and I have never slept in my car in a national park, please don’t hate me.)

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.